Spencer Liff left behind the bright lights of Broadway in 2009 to become a choreographer on the hit TV dance competition So You Can Think You Can Dance. Currently in his fourth season as one of the show’s Broadway-style dance makers, the 9 to 5 and Cry-Baby veteran recently scored an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Choreography.
“It was crazy,” Liff told Broadway.com of hearing that he was a 2012 Emmy nominee. “My friends from New York called and I screamed and didn’t understand what was happening because it was 5:45 in the morning [in Los Angeles].” Liff’s nomination is split between three routines he choreographed: “Whatever Lola Wants” from Damn Yankees, “Please Mr. Jailor” by Rachel Sweet and “(Where Do I Begin) Love Story” by Shirley Bassey. “I love that all three were nominated because they’re polar opposites from each other,” Liff said. “I have a recognizable movement quality and style, but I try hard every week to do something totally different so I’m not repeating myself. One [number] was sexy, one was serious and one was funny, so I’m proud that I was able to pull off all of those genres.”
Before each season of So You Think You Can Dance begins, Liff submits his dance ideas to the producers to see if song rights can be cleared. He must also brainstorm lighting set-ups, camera movements, wardrobe choices and other elements of each number. The majority of his work is done before he even knows which dancers he will coach. “When you find out your dancers you’re pretty much locked into a number and it’s your job to make it work,” he explained. “There are certain pieces that are completely technique based, and you could not pull them off unless you have dancers that can do kicks and turns, so you think, ‘This is not the week to get the hip hop guy.’ Sometimes that happens, and the only thing to do is remove yourself from what you thought [the number] would be, focus on what the dancers can do and push them slightly beyond that.”
While Liff moved from Broadway to So You Think You Can Dance, many of the contestants are taking the opposite route. Show veterans like Evan Kasprzak (Newsies) and Ariana DeBose (Bring It On) recently made their Broadway debuts. “These kids dance 15 hours a day,” he says of the TV schedule, “but obviously on Broadway you have to sing, as well. When contestants say they want to go to New York, you tell them the reality: It’s not just dancing. However, the kids on the show are immersed in an unparalleled crash course of different styles, working with top choreographers, with millions of people watching each week. They’re pretty much be prepared for anything.”
So will Liff return to Broadway himself any time soon? “You’ll probably see my choreography before you see me [on stage] again. I was really lucky and had an awesome Broadway career, but my goal was never to be the leading man. I wanted to direct and choreograph, and I wanted to do it sooner rather than later. I didn’t want to wait until my shelf life as a dancer expired. Being on So You Think You Can Dance jumpstarted that.”
An exception to Liff’s no-performance pledge: several episodes of the first season of Smash, which he hopes to return to, if his schedule allows. “I’m so proud the show exists in New York because New York hasn’t really had a show like that to showcase actual Broadway performers,” he notes. “I’m excited for the new season because it’s going to be very different and better, with a lot more dancing!”
Click below to view the trio of Liff’s Emmy-nominated routines.